A Brief history of the Wear
It was in the early days of the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company, that a railway to tap the mineral wealth of Weardale was first considered. However, it wasn't until November 1843 when the Bishop Auckland & Weardale Railway was opened from Shildon Junction to Crook that any real attempt was made to penetrate the dale. The line was leased and worked by the Stockton & Darlington Railway. An extension of this line in 1845 from Crook to Waskerley was opened to serve as another outlet for the Derwent Iron Company at Consett. The section of line was originally called the Weardale Extension Railway but later under a merger with the line from Stanhope to Consett, was known as the Wear & Derwent Junction Railway.
A plan to penetrate Weardale proper was covered by the Wear Valley Act of July 1845, which was to provide a line from Witton Junction (Wear Valley Junction) on the Bishop Auckland & Weardale Railway to Frosterley, with a connecting branch to Bishopley. The line was opened on 3rd August 1847. An even more ambitious plan to extend the line further up the dale via Alston to Carlisle by the Wear Valley Company never got off the ground because of the depressed financial situation at the time. The Frosterley & Bishopley areas were known to be rich in limestone deposits and soon extensive quarries were established on both sides of the valley. To the north side were Rogerley and Frosterley Quarries and to the south served by the Bishopley branch - the Bishopley Quarries. The limestone was quarried to serve the iron making furnaces on Teesside.
In 1862 the Wear Valley line was extended to Stanhope by the Frosterley & Stanhope railway, mainly to reach the Newlandside Estate on the south side of the town where again large quantities of limestone were known to exist. The boom period for the quarries in the Frosterley & Stanhope areas was in the 1870's, when they were either being extended or new ones were being opened. An extension of the Bishopley Branch introduced the quarries of Fineburn and Bishopley Crag and a siding from the station yard at Frosterley crossed the river by the 'fly bridge' to act as another outlet from the now extended Bishopley Quarry - North Bishopley. Parson Byers Quarry near Stanhope established in 1872, was situated high on the south side of the valley. It was connected to the Wear Valley line by a self-acting incline and due to its enormous size had its own internal railway system. There were approximately 13 miles of quarries in Weardale, and most of them were concentrated around Frosterley and Stanhope. Quarrying in the area declined sharply after the First World War and throughout the 1920's. Some however did survive until recent times, e.g. Newlandside and Parson Byers.
The final extension of the Wear Valley line to Wearhead was opened on 21st October 1895. It was impossible to extend the line from the existing station at Stanhope and therefore a new one had to be built. Within this section of the line was situated the Greenfoot Whinstone Quarry, which had its own narrow gauge railway system. On the northern hillside was the plant of the Weardale Lead Company at Rookhope. It was connected to the railway in the valley bottom by an aerial flight. Between Eastgate and Westgate at Cambokeels, sidings were established to serve the Weardale Iron Company's Heights limestone quarry. This quarry is still operational today.
The passenger train service survived until 29th June 1953. Up until closure, four trains per day had served the stations of Witton-Le- Wear, Harperley, Wolsingham, Frosterley, Stanhope, Eastgate, Westgate-in-Weardale, St. Johns Chapel and Wearhead. The freight service to Wearhead survived until 1961 when the line was cut back the St John's Chapel. West of Eastgate followed in 1968, which is the present terminus.
Eastgate cement works were established in 1964 and brought new life to the Wear valley line. Utilising purpose built container wagons, cement was transported mainly by rail from the plant to Teesside, Tyneside and Scotland. This operation ceased on 17th March 1993.
The line which existed until 2004 was single throughout between Eastgate and Shildon. There is a connecting spur into Bishop Auckland station - the terminus of the 'Heritage Line' passenger service from Darlington. A summer only Sunday passenger train service to Stanhope operated as an extension to the Darlington service between 1988 & 1992. The success of this service was instrumental in reopening the station at Etherley (re-named Witton Park), in August 1991.
A campaign to save the line west of Bishop Auckland, now known as the Weardale Railway, began in 1993 with the threat of closure and track uplift a real possibility after the last cement train ran. Until 2004, the line was mothballed, but purchase by Weardale Railways Limited was achieved and the first works trains began running in 2004 in preparation for the reopening of the first section between Stanhope and Wolsingham.